Dave Helling

We’re stuck with the Iowa caucuses

Updated: 2014-01-24T02:20:45Z


The Kansas City Star

Iowans held their caucuses this week. Missed them, didn’t you?

In presidential election years, the Iowa caucuses occupy the white hot center of the political universe. Newspapers and television screens are filled with images of weary candidates traipsing through the snow.

Pollsters poll. Anchors anchor. Campaigners campaign.

In even-numbered, non-presidential election years, though, the Iowa caucuses are, uh, less visible.

They’re important just the same. They’re part of an ongoing process that’s moving the state to permanent status as the site of the first presidential nominating contest — no matter what the rest of the country thinks, or needs.

National Republicans, for example, are meeting this week in Washington, where they will again discuss explicitly protecting Iowa’s caucuses as the first contest of the 2016 presidential campaign.

Other states have resisted Iowa’s poll position in the past and have faced punishment for their trouble. This year it appears those states, and all the others, are ready to concede Iowa’s first-in-the-nation claim.

In making that choice, Republicans and like-minded Democrats rely on myth. The Iowa caucuses, we’re told, are old-fashioned retail politics. They force candidates to meet voters in their homes. Iowa voters are focused, intelligent and committed to screening the presidential field.

I’ve covered several Iowa caucuses and they’re largely bunk. Yes, I stood in a living room when John Edwards addressed 100 people. He didn’t say anything he wouldn’t say to 1,000 voters, or 10,000, or hadn’t said in a commercial.

Bob Dole, Dick Gephardt, Hillary Clinton, others: I’ve seen them all shake Iowa hands. They’re pretty much like the hands around here.

Iowans are smart, sure, but no smarter than voters in other, more ethnically diverse states. And caucus turnout can be mediocre, dominated by extreme elements in both parties.

When the votes do come in, they may not tell us much. The GOP count in 2012 was horribly mishandled. When the dust cleared, Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney were virtually tied.

When the state voted at the August GOP convention, though, 22 of its 28 delegates supported Ron Paul, who finished third in the caucuses.

Iowans, who talked about the challenges at this week’s caucuses, have promised to address these issues. The 2016 results will bind delegates, sort of, and counting will be more rigorous.

We’ll see. That isn’t a throwaway line: We will see, because it looks like we’re all headed back to Des Moines, about this time, two years from now.

To reach Dave Helling, call 816-234-4656 or send email to dhelling@kcstar.com.

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